India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was in Europe last week. Rarely do key European capitals extend the level of courtesy and attention we saw lavished on him. But Modi is no ordinary visitor, for in today’s global dynamics India presents the West with a difficult calculus.
India is the most important ally of the US that has remained equidistant from both sides in the Ukraine crisis. When some tried to nudge it to side with the West, India’s response was as assertive as it was firm in maintaining its position.
India matters. It is by far the most militarily powerful Western ally in Asia. It has a long border with China and a conflict with this rising superpower that is likely unresolvable in the medium term. These two factors give India a strategic importance in any US (or Western) calculus. So, it was not surprising that the US saw it as a valuable success when India joined the US-led Quad group along with Japan and Australia, which is effectively a budding alliance to encircle China.
India is also a colossal demographic power in Asia. This translates into a major market that all global companies eye with strong interest. But demography is much more than consumption. It is also social depth and solidity – things of serious importance when new technologies sponsored by extremely wealthy interests are diluting national identities.
To this should be added the fact that India has a highly successful diaspora that includes communities of serious influence in different regions of the world as well as the CEOs of around 20 of the most important global companies.
Not surprisingly, the West wants to draw India towards it. The question is at what cost.
India needs highly sophisticated Western arms to diversify away from its decades-long dependence on Russian weapons, particularly as it seeks to bolster its traditional (non-nuclear) capabilities, not really vis-à-vis Pakistan, but primarily relative to China.
However, this makes supplying India with advanced weapons a difficult decision for the West. India is not a country that is lagging behind and that could be pleased with massive shipments of arms that it lacks the capabilities to use to their true potential. With its serious technological base, India can optimise its acquisition of any advanced weapons. As such, any decision to supply India with advanced arms will be noted in China.
India also wants much better terms of trade with most large Western economies, which is another dilemma for the West. Several major Western companies operating in different sectors have learnt from long experience in India that the market there has its own peculiarities and that attempting to impose external rules on it is futile.
Based on these experiences and impelled by India’s size and weight, many Western countries have been tempted to give India special terms of trade. But such preferential treatment could well prompt other important countries to demand the same treatment, which when they do not receive it would create unnecessary complications for many Western countries as well as for the European Union.
Crucially, India wants respect and reciprocity. Like China, India feels that its experience over the past two centuries was far from what it deserves (or, as some would say, what it is entitled to).
The British Raj and its aftermath – the struggle for independence, the political divisions that took place in the Indian subcontinent in the mid-20th century, and the subsequent military confrontations that came as a result – and the economic difficulties that many in India believe are the consequences of unfair Western policies – all these things are viewed as episodes in a trajectory of historical decline. At the core of the ideology of the ruling Indian Bharatiya Janata Party is a determination that this decline must be reversed.
This means that the West must accept Indian values, views, and terms of trade as those of an equal, whether in politics or in trade. However, the West has not engaged with any civilisation in the past 300 years as an equal. India is not as assertive as China in demanding particular treatment. But it notes what is happening and subtly reciprocates.
Yet, as it notes how others treat it, India realises that these encounters present it with difficult choices.
India is almost compelled by its acute disagreements with China to be close to US-led efforts in Asia and the Pacific. But India does not aim to be, in former Singapore prime minister Lee Kwan Yew’s phrase, “an honourary member of the West.” Instead, India sees itself as a centre of gravity in its neighbourhood and a radiating civilisation whose glow both illuminates as well as draws in those around it.
The subtle rivalry that comes as a result is one of the reasons behind India’s conflict with China. It is also a brake in its getting too close to the West.
There is also a values issue. For the past 60 years since its independence, India’s politics – externally, but much more importantly, internally – have been anchored in an expansive conception of what India means. In this conception, India is an aggregation of the heritages of the different cultures that have existed on the Indian subcontinent over the past several hundred years. This is the tradition espoused by Gandhi and sustained by India’s first post-independence prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Arguably, it is the tradition that has enabled India to have a serious democratic system.
However, this tradition has been losing ground in India over the past two decades. The ruling Political Hinduism in the country today defines India narrowly, excluding from its rhetoric about national identity anything that it sees as diluting Hinduism. As a result, the more India embraces a narrowed scope of its history and identity, the more it will lose its attraction as a successful political entity anchored on genuine representation and respect for liberalism. Inevitably, this will break the sense of belonging to the camp of political liberalism that has connected India and the West over the past six decades.
The more a narrowly defined nationalism prevails in India, the more the country will lose its strongest political differentiation from China: its positioning as a colossal Asian society sustaining a true democracy. This will be a serious political loss for India. India’s struggle with Pakistan would also increasingly be portrayed as one between Hinduism and Islamism in this scenario, something which India has worked for decades to avoid.
A narrowly defined assertive nationalism would not only dilute the soft power attached to India’s politics, but it would also lessen the sense of continuity in India’s rich history. Modern India would thus become seemingly disconnected from the marvels of its ancient and highly advanced philosophy – arguably the most powerful association the collective global consciousness has when it thinks about India.
The Ukraine crisis has brought India’s dilemmas and dilemmas about India into the limelight. Whether they will be solved or exacerbated in the future will be of major importance to India and the rest of the world.
* The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.